Though retinal scanning may be an important piece of the meat-tracking puzzle, it has an obvious disadvantage: the eye needs to be connected to the rest of the animal. Once the animal is cut apart-“disassembled,” in industry parlance-the retinal scan is no longer useful. Neither, for that matter, is an RFID ear tag. The one surefire identifier is DNA, which can be used to trace any animal part anywhere in the production process-and let consumers know where, exactly, their dinner came from.
This advanced, and still pricey, technology is finding its initial applications in North America’s $13 billion pork industry. Though pork producers might not have to worry about mad-cow disease-there is no equivalent mad-pig disease-they face their own safety worries, as well as growing consumer demand for products from pigs raised in healthy and disease-free environments. For producers hoping to market their products as premium pork, it is critical to document just where the meat came from.
Maple Leaf Foods-Canada’s largest producer of pork-plans by this November to market pork products that are tracked by the industry’s first DNA-based meat-tracking technology. It includes a DNA test and a database that will allow pork products to be conclusively traced from a store shelf back to their origins. Initially, the products will be sold in Japan, where consumers have proven willing to pay extra for reliable information on meat origins. At a current cost of 40 Canadian dollars per test, the technology is clearly not suitable for routine testing of packages of meats, but it could be used to spot-check shipments of pork to assure consumers and stores that they originated on Canadian farms and are safe. “We want to reposition the Canadian pig industry in terms of food safety. We can prove that this piece of meat in Tokyo came from Canada, and from Maple Leaf, and from a certain food production system,” says John Webb, the Toronto-based company’s director of genetics and science.
The technology, developed by Pyxis Genomics of Chicago, consists of a simple test that determines the presence of a set of genetic markers known to be common to a mother and all her offspring. Once a mother’s DNA fingerprint is in a database, a tissue sample from a piece of meat can be tested to see if it matches. It’s a technology particularly well suited to the arithmetic of pig breeding. A sow can produce 50 to 70 piglets in a lifetime, so a single blood sample from a mother pig provides a way to conclusively verify the source of an enormous quantity of chops, loins, and bacon.
A key element of the Maple Leaf system is a database under development by IBM Canada. At first, the database will contain limited information; if a sample is tested and a match found, it will simply show that the pork came from the offspring of a particular sow at a certain Maple Leaf supplier’s farm. But the database is being constructed to handle more detailed information about pigs, such as their birth dates, weight gains, medical treatments, and breeding history. “It’s extremely scalable, so all the pigs in the world could be in this database, and it still could run quickly,” points out Susan Wilkinson, who heads the Maple Leaf database project as an associate partner with IBM’s business consulting service in Toronto.
Maple Leaf says it hopes to eventually use a single DNA test that can be used to not only trace meat but also screen it for pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. “That’s the dream ticket, and a lot of people are working on it,” Webb says. He’s optimistic that such a test will be available in five years, helping to enhance the safety of pork supplies. “DNA is very much the platform for the future,” he contends.
But while DNA testing is an exciting prospect, it remains a niche opportunity for the marketing of high-end food products. For now, it’s far too expensive to play a role in most of the U.S. and Canadian pork industry, never mind at North America’s 800,000 cattle farms. And even for more mundane and readily available technologies like RFID tags, the gap between optimistic promises and the realities on the farm and feedlots means improving the safety of the nation’s meat supplies will be a stiff challenge.